Grunge survivors

May 14, 2003 at 12:00 am

Despair not. Though we are subjected to the villainous drivel that drips from mainstream radio and soils our spirits, we can be cleansed. Though we may be stricken deaf and left blind by the devils that rule the airwaves, take heart, brothers and sisters, for the gods of rock hath bequeathed us the Melvins.

Or something like that.

“Lip-tight its prophecy … dancing caged and small in its cavity,” say the Melvins on their 1989 release, Cranky Messiah. The lyric was prescient, a metaphor for a band that spearheaded a genre of music that was to be revered, obsessed over and ultimately betrayed.

The Melvins — drummer/ vocalist Dale Crover, lead vocalist/ guitarist Buzz Osbourne and bassist Kevin Rutamanis — were launched nearly 20 years ago.

“How far back do you want to go?” laughs Crover when asked about the Melvins’ meager West Coast beginnings.

(It’s only an hour or so from show time, but the pleasantly laid-back Crover is more than generous with what little time he has to take a phone interview.)

Crover and Osbourne started out playing together in the Aberdeen, Wash., area. Rutamanis (formerly of the Cows) joined the band after the departure of the Melvins’ first bassist, Matt Lukin, who would form the godhead band Mudhoney.

In the mid-’80s, while the music scene in suburban Seattle was nearly nonexistent, bands like the Melvins were continually relegated to sharing stages with “shitty Def Leppard and Van Halen cover bands,” Crover says.

Touring became imperative. The Melvins often drove for hours to play for 50 people and some gas money. But they etched a place in the Seattle scene. Whether they knew it or not, their sound, which ruminated from the ashes of the vinyl-entombed rock gods of yore, would garner critical acclaim as “visionary” and “the new punk rock.” It was a lit match and a music journalist’s wet dream; it was dubbed grunge.

In the early ’90s, while the grunge movement was on the rise, songs like “Zodiac” and “It’s Shoved” from the Melvins’ 1991 release Bullhead, ruled the roost. The cocaine/ Valium/ mescaline-high cacophony lauded the influences of Black Sabbath, Flipper and the Stooges, but still embraced a certain Frank Zappa-meets-Can exploration. Its sometimes avant-garde feel was by definition, rock ’n’ roll; by visceral barometer, thrash and cloaked in metal; it was a dirty sound on an increasingly sterilized music scene — and it was refreshing.

It still is.

We all know the cumbersome fate of the so-called grunge scene, but the Melvins’ ability to stay above or below the consumerist radar has helped keep the band intact. Currently, the Melvins are doing a large-scale tour for their label, Ipecac Records, with Tomahawk (Rutamanis’ hard-rocking side project) and Dalek.

They adamantly express how important it is for them to connect to their audience.

“Usually when we go on tour on our own,” says Crover, “we like to play little places … places that other bands don’t like to go to. [We do it] because people really get into it … they’re so starved for live entertainment.”

While the Melvins’ greatest asset is undoubtedly the heady energy of their live shows, it is sometimes hard to believe that there are only three of them on stage. When asked what a first-timer can expect, Crover laughs and says with contemplative seriousness, “You’ll get your ass kicked a lot harder than any other band you could possibly see.”

And everyone could use a good ass-kicking once in a while.


The Melvins are scheduled to perform on Friday, May 16, at the Majestic Theatre (4140 Woodward, Detroit) with Tomahawk and Dalek. Call 313-833-9700 for more information.

E-mail Eric Arndt at [email protected]